Life in a Communist Country
A Sliver of Soap
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I took the thin layer of leftover soap and tried to stick it to a new bar I had unwrapped. I never stopped to think why I’ve always done this. I don’t throw away a bottle of liquid soap or a dispenser of lotion either – I cut it open and use up the last ounce.
I am not a miser or Scrooge on purpose - I think it goes back to the years of living under the communist regime when we were deprived of all basic necessities, things that Americans always expect to be plentiful and available. I never forgot the powerful lesson of need and deprivation.
The domestically produced “Cheia” soap was made of animal fat with a particularly unpleasant odor. We used it to bathe, to do laundry by hand, and to wash our hair. Few could afford the nicely fragranced “Lux” soap bar available on the black market or in foreign currency stores set up for visitors.
In a country where the medical system was socialized and “free,” in order to do their job right and supplement their meager salaries, doctors accepted bribes in soap, shampoo, deodorant, cosmetics, perfume, and other expensive and hard to find items.
Hotel maids brought home leftover soap, shampoo, or deodorant bottles that foreign guests discarded from toiletry bags when checking out.
The garments washed in “Cheia” soap and air-dried on clothes lines smelled like wet dogs. If that was not bad enough, by the time they dried, they turned grey from dust and other pollutants. In winter time clothes were stiff on the line.
Lacking bleach, we used to boil white garments on the stove in a huge cooking pot with melted soap in it, stirring occasionally with a stick to prevent clothes from burning. When garments faded, mom added a blue powder to the washing pot to revive dark colors.
We saw the communist apparatchiks take their laundry to the cleaners. We envied the luxury and secretly wished we could do it too.
We scrubbed dishes with a harsh white powder. We boiled water on the stove to launder bedding items. Sheets were scrubbed by hand in the tub until my young hands were raw – no latex gloves.
The iron was literally a piece of cast iron heated repeatedly on the stove - Grandma’s version had hot coals inside. I had to be extra careful not to burn the sheets or Dad’s shirts – they were too expensive to replace.
Because shampoo was very pricey and hard to find (it came packaged in small plastic squares for individual use), we washed our hair with “Cheia” in the sink. It was difficult to rinse the soap out completely; traces of whitish powder remained in the hair shaft and on the comb. We did not know hair dryers existed until we watched “Dallas” on TV. In winter time I bent over the gas stove, drying hair over the open flame – I am still amazed that my mane did not catch on fire – I did singe the ends sometimes and my eyebrows.
Americans can find such a wide and cheap variety of products; unappreciative of the abundance, always wanting more, they are unhappy and gripe about how poor they are. We would have loved to find just one brand of fragrant bath soap, shampoo, and toothpaste. What a luxury that would have been!
We did not fathom the existence of a washing machine much less of a dryer or of a dishwasher. Women today still hang laundry outside, nobody owns a drier. If they did, they could not afford the electricity, the rates are sky-high, and the power is insufficient to run appliances simultaneously. Many people own a front-loading washing machine but the clothes come out extremely wrinkled and have to be ironed. The fabric is rough to the touch, not soft. A fragranced liquid detergent replaced the unpleasant communist era “Cheia” soap.
Deodorant was also scarce and quite expensive. There was a very good reason why people smelled – hygiene and grooming were costly and a luxury. Many did not have running water in their homes or a bathtub; Turkish baths were available in bigger towns. Cosmetics and grooming products were astronomically priced for the proletariat - we were all equally poor and smelly.
Shaving was a luxury and few women owned razors – au naturel was the norm and nobody complained. Men looked disheveled because it was painful to shave with dull razor blades every day.
The ultimate in luxury and financial well-being was to afford a kinky perm in a beauty shop. Hair was burned in tight curls for months before it grew back healthy again. Women’s heads looked like sheep.
We are so spoiled in this country; people spend astronomical amounts for hair products, soap, cosmetics, deodorant, hair driers, laundry products, and machines that make life so much easier. Laundry services are affordable enough that many Americans can take their clothes to be professionally dry cleaned. The deprived society I grew up in would have been surprised at how little appreciation Americans have for their plenty.
I finally understood what my Grandmother meant when she used to tell us, every time we turned our noses to food or something she offered, “Are you tired of Good?”